As the seed industry consolidates, open source breeders hope to preserve important varieties for the farms of the future
The Open Seed Source Initiative (OSSI) is a direct response to the fact that many of the world’s crop varieties are being developed, patented, and sold by the Big Six seed and chemical companies. Five of the Big Six are likely to merge into just 3 very powerful seed and chemical giants (ChemChina & Syngenta, Bayer & Monsanto, Dow Chemical & DuPont), and would own more than half of the world’s seed supply.
In only 80 short years (from 1903 to 1983), the U.S. has lost about 93% of our unique seed varieties to industrial agriculture.
Our food security is at risk. “Having so few people making decisions about what biodiversity is planted on the agricultural landscape is scary. We’ve been shown that when many people rely on too narrow a germplasm pool, we know the risk of plant disease is much higher.” -Claire Luby, plant breeder and executive director of OSSI
Most plant breeding used to take place in the university setting, particularly at Land Grant Universities,which are publicly funded agricultural and technical educational institutions. Now, in many cases, those universities’ influence on the marketplace have been overshadowed by the big seed companies.
As a result, according to a2014 reportfrom Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), the U.S. has lost over a third of its public plant-breeding programs in the last 20 years, and the number of public seed breeders continues to decline. For example, “there are only five public corn breeders left, down from a peak of 25 in the 1960s,” according to the report’s authors.
University seed research is also often tied up by intellectual property restrictions. Under the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, all inventions that come out of universities must go through designated technology transfer offices. so academic breeders don’t often retain the rights to the seeds they breed. In addition, Deppe notes that, “University plant breeders are increasingly having trouble getting access to the germplasm they need to breed new varieties.”
Claire Luby, a plant breeder and postdoctoralresearch associate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is the executive director of OSSI. She has spent years breeding seeds and studying intellectual property rights, and has released eight open-source carrot varieties through OSSI. Luby says that around a third of all carrot germplasm is private. And while it’s tough to say exactly how much publicly available, unpatented seed exists outside OSSI, the overall trend is alarming.
For one, says Luby, food security is at risk. “Having so few people making decisions about what biodiversity is planted on the agricultural landscape is scary. We’ve been shown that when many people rely on too narrow a germplasm pool, we know the risk of [plant] disease is much higher.”
In response, Deppe, who is on the board of OSSI, says the group wants “to create a protected commons in which at least a substantial part of all the germplasm needed to create new seed crops is kept available for everyone’s use.”